Where do Atlanta’s poets, storytellers and freestylers launch their careers or bring home their successes? As with almost everything else in our city, the answer is changing.
Java Monkey, a longtime spoken-word mainstay in Decatur, burned down this past November. In February, the owners of Apache Cafe — a locally and nationally renowned institution in the spoken-word community — announced that they’d be forced to move due to the rising rent of their broken-down building in Midtown. In April, feminist bookstore Charis Books and More moved out of Little Five Points after 45 years in the neighborhood, 25 at its Euclid Avenue location.
Other literary events seem to be in flux as well, such as Lit: Books, Booze & Beats, a literary performance show that’s gone on hiatus from its most recent location at Monday Night Garage.
With so many moves and changes afoot for such iconic cultural spaces in Atlanta, it’s worth asking if and how this literary community and the broader Atlanta spoken-word scene are coevolving with a gentrifying city — and with all of the rent hikes and sociocultural battlegrounds that that entails.
L5P GENTRIFICATION AND CHARIS BOOKS AND MORE
“There’s a way in which the arts in Atlanta are frequently used for gentrification,” says E.R. Anderson, executive director of Charis Circle, the nonprofit programming arm of Charis Books and More, which reopened in Decatur in April as the official bookstore of Agnes Scott College.
Charis will continue its long-running poetry series Clitorati, hosted by renowned poets Theresa Davis and Karen G., at the new location.
In explaining Charis’ decision to move from Little Five Points, Anderson describes various stakeholders’ attempts to turn the neighborhood into an arts district without fully engaging with the existing communities and their current issues. Among them, Anderson says, illegal drug use and the neighborhood’s significant homeless population (which Anderson says increased with the development of Memorial Drive and Reynoldstown).
Anderson describes “a real mixed bag of shop owners” in Little Five Points, some of whom treated the neighborhood’s homeless and addict populations as residents, and others who “just wanted these people gone so their property values would increase.”
Anderson says that, for Charis, as a social-justice, mission-driven arts organization that believes in economic justice, it was an uphill battle to bring these values to the fore in conversations about the future of Little Five Points.
“We really struggled with no nuance in that conversation. I mean it sucks to clean up needles and condoms all the time . . . and the answer is not to just be like ‘these people are disposable; let’s gentrify this neighborhood.’ The answer is to ask the City of Atlanta for more resources.”
Anderson says events like art performances were often the incentive to “clean up” the neighborhood and push people out.
“To have this superficial idea of arts gentrification, which is how it felt to me, I’m like, ‘that’s not why we do art, that’s not why we read, that’s not what we’re here for.'”
Ultimately, even after 45 years in the neighborhood, the battle became too much, and Charis embraced an opportunity to leave.
“I really worry in general about the ways that art is used to make neighborhoods palatable, and to criminalize poor people, and to push people out. We didn’t want to be a part of that,” Anderson says, though they also add that recently there’s been more holistic efforts to engage the community while also becoming an arts district.
“So it might actually happen now that we’re gone!”
THE VOICE OF THE LITERARY ARTS
While the arts as the leading edge of gentrification is by no means a new concept, Anderson’s account of the Charis move points to a particular tension — and opportunity — for the voice of literary performance communities in our changing city. Performance arts, like spoken word, freestyling and other forms of live storytelling, are often defined by their deep political roots, critical perspective and facility with language. As such, their communities often have a unique perspective about the spaces they’re occupying, especially amidst a changing Atlanta.
Atlanta slam poet Theresa Davis is just one shining example of cultivating community and consciousness through poetry. She and poet Karen G not only host the previously mentioned Clitorati show at Charis; they also created Art Amok, an open space for underrepresented voices.
“Not only women’s voices,” Davis told ARTS ATL back in 2016, “but people of color, transpeople. When we said we were open, we were open to anything.”
In a recent interview, Davis said that ultimately, “Poetry is a conversation that sparks discussion. I always seek to find the spaces and places where our humanity touches, to create work that encourages communication and a lens to see how our realities are not as different as the world would have us believe.”
Alex Acosta, one of the founders of Soul Food Cypher — a society of freestyle rappers that build community through hip-hop and education — echoes these sentiments. He recently summarized the impact of his craft, saying, “In this country, I just think that there’s not enough empathy because we don’t understand each other’s stories. We don’t have shared experiences because of division, race, location and social economic issues. . . . When you’re in a cypher [freestyling circle], critical thinking and listening skills are at their height. You are stopping and you’re listening. And then you’re also paying attention to other individuals, and in return, they will listen to you. Where else does that happen nowadays?”
Davis and Acosta are both trailblazing examples of ATL literary performance artists whose communities and skill sets enable them to keep political consciousness top-of-mind in all the spaces they occupy. A critical and vocal perspective about the politics of placemaking appears to be more of the rule than the exception in the literary arts community.
AUDIENCE VOICE IN ACTION: BOOKS, BOOZE & BEATS
Such a critical perspective was definitely at play when Mike Jordan and Jacinta Howard, cohosts of literary performance show Lit: Books, Booze & Beats, decided to take a hiatus from the West End’s Monday Night Garage.
“One of the reasons why we paused,” says Jordan, “is the controversy over Brian Kemp speaking there.” Jordan says that he’s “friends with the owners, who are really good guys,” but he says that after that, “I had to tell them I was really disappointed and that [the show] needed to take a break.”
Jordan describes the context for this decision, saying, “When you have Stacey Abrams, who went to Spelman, the nation’s only all-women black college located right around the corner, nobody’s telling you that you have to make political endorsements just because of the neighborhood, but you can’t have Brian Kemp first. To me, it was just an ultimate sign of the insensitivity to the fact that you’re a new person in this neighborhood, and Brian Kemp represents a whole lot that this neighborhood never wanted, never needed and protected itself from for a long time. So you can legally bring Brian Kemp into the West End, but you can’t get away with it.”
Jordan says that he immediately got questions and comments from his audience, who are majority black women, literary and politically aware.
“Ultimately, I had a community to answer to. I heard from enough folks to know that I couldn’t just ignore this, nor did I want to.” He adds that having black women take over a craft brewery for a night is significant because it’s so unusual, so “as a business, if you want that untapped market share — and I know craft beer does — hosting Brian Kemp was a strategic miscalculation.”
SOUL FOOD CYPHER
Consciousness about politics within community spaces is also fundamental to Acosta’s Soul Food Cypher, which operates all around the city, hosting events at the Annex Bookstore and member meetings out of a salon on the West Side.
“I’ve put forth a call that if rappers are going to promote place, make sure there is equity in those places,” says Acosta. He adds that “there are some rappers and MCs who are great examples of that; on a local level, you have Killer Mike and T.I. who promote businesses and things like ‘Buy the Block,’ but also rest in peace to Nipsey Hussle. He was at the forefront of that, and I think his legacy, besides his music, is his entrepreneurial skills, seeing the importance of place, and having ownership.”
Nipsey Hussle’s recent death struck many as especially tragic given his work in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw neighborhood, where he used his resources and public platform to create job opportunities, start a STEM center, help convicted felons with reentry and even restore a historic skating rink. His incredible work, what Atlanta gentrification expert King Williams calls “place-keeping,” has been top-of-mind for other rappers, artists and developers conscious of the spaces they’re occupying and the opportunity for the arts to be not just the leading edge of gentrification but a force that genuinely engages with their communities.
It was in an Atlanta context that Williams recently referred to Hussle as “the leader everyone says they want. The unconventional leader; accessible, educated, non-conforming and not pandering empty anecdotes of ‘advancement’ to the Black community.” Williams used his thoughts on Hussle’s community building and place-keeping to frame his interview with developers Donray Von and Ryan Gravel (of BeltLine fame) about the fate of the West End Mall.
SOUTHWEST ATLANTA AND APACHE CAFE
“Lee and White is a cultural battleground — thankfully a peaceful one thus far, but a battleground,” says Jordan, commenting on his show’s previously mentioned hiatus from Monday Night Garage, which is located at the Lee and White intersection in the West End.
While the story of a changing Southwest Atlanta is much bigger than the purview of this article, in terms of performance spaces, literary communities are hungry for venues that are cheap, accessible and ADA compliant, and big enough but not so huge that the room feels empty at an event.
These are increasingly hard to come by.
Representatives from the literary battle show Write Club, the female and nonbinary reading series Bleux Stockings Society and the monthly storytelling event Carapace all expressed gratitude for their low-rent or rent-free arrangements with their Virginia Highlands’ locations (Highland Ballroom and Manuel’s Tavern, respectively), knowing that access to such spaces is by no means a given. Other literary events are constantly hustling to find these kinds of long-term homes, and, with rising rent costs, many such spaces are on the West Side, where Apache Cafe is reopening.
After rent hikes drove them out of Midtown, the owners of Apache Cafe have started hosting events in an interim location in the Murphy Park Fairgrounds while they work out their creative vision for the future. Spoken-word, rap and soul nights and open mics will continue to be integral to Apache’s plans on the West Side. Co-owner Asa Fain says that they actually bought a studio complex in the area 10 years ago and have been hoping someone would do something cool with the 4.5-acre Fairgrounds space across the street; now that “someone” is them.
About the new spot, Fain says that while they’re “blessed and privileged to have a large group of folks who continue to have confidence in us to do the arts, music, and programming,” they’re also “looking forward to being part of the West Side community.”
Fain says that the Midtown location wasn’t what made Apache’s community, especially given the business owners, large developments and turnover cycle of that part of town. On the West Side, Fain says they’re already getting a lot of new folks coming into the space and that they’re seeing a lot of support from their neighbors.
“The neighborhood is such a cool area, and it’s a legacy neighborhood, and I think what we do and what the Apache stands for — creativity, invention, rebelliousness, small businesses and advancing artists’ careers — is a perfect fit for the neighborhood.”
A VOICE TO SHAPE THE CITY, ON AND OFF THE STAGE
As poet Amena Brown recently wrote, “No matter what the venue, the poets will meet. We make our own stages.”
It’s true, and it speaks to the ingenuity, perseverance and place-keeping of Atlanta’s spoken-word and literary arts communities. In addition to Apache’s performances at its new space, Charis Books and More will host its first Clitorati in its new location on May 16.
While Java Monkey is still reeling from the arson, and is now waiting on city permits to begin reconstruction in full, it plans to keep spoken-word as a mainstay. “Java Monkey was known nationwide for its poetry,” says owner David Strickland. “It brought something really different, really unique, and a regular community.”
In the meantime, the Java Speaks show is being hosted down the street at The Pinewood/Bar Crema. Additionally, other literary performance spaces continue to hum along, with storytelling events like The Moth, Write Club, Bleux Stockings Society and Carapace, and regular spoken-word nights at Kat’s Cafe, Red Light Cafe, Urban Grind and ArtsXchange.
Despite recent closures, moves and reopenings, Atlanta’s literary performance arts are thriving. What remains to be seen is how these communities will continue to use their critical perspective, community consciousness, way with words and unique voice to shape their stages and spaces, to ensure they’re able to stay in our ever-changing city.